12 NBA Predictions for the ’15-16 Season, Pt 1

December 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

Before this NBA season, I sat down and wrote some predictions: outlandish or unexpected things that I didn’t necessarily believe were going to happen, but were more likely to happen than I had heard anyone else write about. I came up with 14 predictions for the ’15-16 season, then my Kickstarter for The Pros issue #2 took over and I didn’t finish writing the last two. Those last two have already turned out to be terrible predictions, so let’s pretend they never happened. So here’s 12 NBA predictions for the ’15-16 season, part 1.

1) Injuries will knock out one of the West’s top 6.

Last year, injuries all but completely wiped out the season for superstars Kevin Durant and Paul George–and with them, any hope their teams had at championship contention. While both the Thunder and the Pacers seemed like locks for high seeds in their respective conferences, losing Durant and George, alongside lesser injuries to players like Russell Westbrook, George Hill, and David West, knocked both teams out of the playoffs entirely.

Injuries are an unfortunate fact of life in the NBA: they define seasons and sway titles. Right now the Warriors, Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers, Rockets, and Thunder form a consensus top 6 in the West, easily head and shoulders ahead of the pack. But realistically? A serious injury to any one of a dozen players would knock one of those teams off that perch, and it’s a long way to fall. While I hate making such a morbid prediction, it’s also a frustratingly safe one: injuries will knock at least one of these teams away from the pack, and potentially out of the playoffs altogether.

2) The 2014 draft class will remind you why it was so hyped.

The hype train for last year’s draft started early and hit hard. So early and so hard that a certain famous columnist started coming up with cute tanking nicknames like “Riggin’ for Wiggins” before the 2013-14 season even started. Last year’s draft class was supposed to be the rare combination of deep and top-heavy, with three potential superstars available in the lottery and prospects who were expected to develop into quality starters taken throughout the first round. Since then, it’s been a bit of a disaster.

It would have been hard for any reasonably successful rookie season to live up to those kinds of expectations, so it’s only fitting that the injury bug wiped out damn near the whole class. Second overall pick Jabari Parker tore his ACL after only a month and a half of action, and he actually had a long, fruitful rookie experience compared to #3 pick Joel Embiid, who missed the whole season, and #7 pick Julius Randle, whose season ended from a broken leg suffered in his very first game. Lottery picks Aaron Gordon and Doug McDermott also missed significant chunks of the season to injury, while lottery talents like Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Nik Stauskas, and Noah Vonleh failed to make much of an impression on anyone. First overall pick Andrew Wiggins won Rookie of the Year almost by default with a merely competent statistical season.

This year, expect that to change. While the injury bug has already claimed Exum and Embiid (again!) for the whole season, if we’re lucky enough to get full seasons from Parker, Gordon, and Randle, a whole lot of talent and potential will thankfully be returned to the league. Equally important is another year of development for Wiggins, an unformed mountain of skills and athleticism whose still-developing feel for the game left many to consider him a longer-term project from the start. Wiggins’ improving play as last season wore on is a promising indicator for his season to come. Meanwhile, more minutes and bigger opportunities are likely for McDermott, Stauskas, and Vonleh, who are each playing for new teams or coaches this year, and bruising Denver center Jusuf Nurkic showed flashes last year as well. The talent that was so obviously dripping from this rookie class didn’t go anywhere, and this year, they’re likely to show it.

3) Mario Hezonija, Scott Skiles. Only one will survive.

With three head coaching stops already on his resume, new Orlando Magic coach Scott Skiles has a bit of a reputation. Skiles is known as a hard-nosed coach whose gritty and grating style creates good defensive discipline and results. Unfortunately, those same qualities also seem to have worn down his players patience with him in Phoenix, Chicago, and Milwaukee, and his departures haven’t always been pretty. Skiles has a clear emphasis on defense and prefers athletic, able defenders over gifted, intuitive scorers. It’s a style that seems like a perfect compliment for most of the key pieces on Orlando’s roster, especially guards Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. For lottery pick Mario Hezonja, though, it’s hard to imagine a worse fit.

I will admit to being irrationally and irrevocably in love with Hezonja. After top pick Karl Anthony Towns, he might be the most athletic rookie in this year’s crop, and he flashes a silky shooting touch and on-ball skills that earned him minutes in the second-best professional league in the world with BC Barcelona. In the league championship series. At the age of 19. Best of all, he might be the cockiest rookie to show up to an NBA training camp since Kobe Bryant. In fact, I desperately wanted my Lakers to pick Hezonja in this year’s draft, as the idea of Kobe and Mario in the same locker room was simply irresistible. Either Kobe would mold him into the perfect basketball sociopath and the only possible heir to his legacy, or he’d kill the young Croat in his sleep.

With Skiles and the Magic, I’m seeing a lot of the same risk without much of the same upside. Regardless of talent, the path of any prospect to NBA success is difficult, and the most successful transitions seem to happen when a young player can find the right fit with a roster and coach that allows him a focused development path. Playing at the whim of Skiles and stuck on the bench behind Oladipo and Tobias Harris, two players in whom the Magic have already invested a tremendous amount of resources, I’m not sure those opportunities are apparent for Hezonja. Even worse, international players are on an even more abbreviated clock than American prospects, with high-level European leagues presenting a much more viable alternative, allowing them to receive a comparable salary closer to home. Several highly touted imports like Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro have made the trek to America only to fail to latch on in the NBA. I’ll be printing up Free Mario t-shirts in hopes that he’s not next.

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